After by Claire Tristram; Georgraphy by Sophie Cunningham; Rhapsody by Robert Ford; The Island Walkers by John Bemrose; The River by Tricia Wastvedt - review by Lucy Beresford

Lucy Beresford

Lucy Beresford on First Novels

  • Claire Tristram, 
  • Sophie Cunningham, 
  • Robert Ford, 
  • John Bemrose, 
  • Tricia Wastvedt


By Claire Tristram

Alison & Busby 231pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

IN BRIEF, CLAIRE Tristram's After (is the story of a multiracial one-night stand. One year on from the murder of her husband (the victim of an unspecified Islamic terrorist attack), a young unnamed American widow singles out a Muslim at a trade fair and, some weeks later, invites him to a hotel on the Pacific Coast for sex. So far, so self-help bereavement therapy. As the night progresses, both are forced to confront their darkest fears and most primitive desires. Tristram details the shifting emotions pulsing through this particular twenty-four hours in all their tenderness and depravity, and examines without compromise the taboo of the exhilaration allied to barbarism. The lovers use and abuse each other in sexual acts bordering on the sadistic. Only by becoming emotionally naked with each other can they attain true intimacy and reach closure, an idea beautifully captured in Tristram's use of the repeated image of an opening and closing fist. She has written a novel about two people trying to find themselves which is as uplifting as it is provocative, as humane as it is brutal.


By Sophie Cunningham

Doubleday 196pp £12 order from our bookshop

Sophie Cunningham, author of Geography worked in publishing for fifteen years. It is therefore with some authority (and not a little irony) that her heroine, Catherine, remarks that people nowadays are bored with stories of obsession. Cunningham's debut maps one Melbourne woman's decent into madness as the result of a destructive affair. Michael, a man twenty years Catherine's senior, lives in Los Angeles. Their relationship spans years, consists mostly of raw sex, and is conducted against a backdrop of international disasters, both natural and man-made. A blossoming friendship with Ruby, a fellow traveller around Southern India, provides the impetus for Catherine's recollection of her doomed relationship Geography is a contemporary take on the great romantic tradtion in literature, with beer-drinking, sexually insatiable Catherine deluding herself that she is wiser than the likes of Jane Eyre. It is also about addiction, and as such has some interesting things to say about denial and responsibility; the scene where Catherine extricates herself from a potentially nasty incident whilst swimming at sea marks a credible turning point in her own recovery: Straddling these two themes is the idea of illusion, reinforced by references to various movies. Cunningham skilfully confronts certain clichés (the tenets of pop psychology, the idea of travel as an agent of change) and never allows Catherine's solipsism to irritate


By Robert Ford

Atlantic 288pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

Robert Ford's Rhapsody recalls certain great symphonies, in which music, emotion and intelligence fuse into a compelling whole. Initially we follow the brief highs and frequent lows of Cooper Barrow, a talented American student conductor who, after an eight-year absence from the podium, has come to Karlsruhe to study under the legendary Maestro Ziegler in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall falls. A burgeoning love affair with the newly demoted first oboist, Petra (a defector from East Germany), forces Barrow to consider living life not as a rehearsal but by instinct. Mysteries surrounding Ziegler's past and the price of Petra's defection add lavers to an already intense narrative. Largely owing to Ford's accomplished characterisation and exquisite phrasing (the seconds between an audience's settling and a conductor's raising his baton are described as being 'the build-up of collective permission'), he is able to examine skilfully the relationships between ambition and reality, student and teacher, truth and illusion. This work is true to its ideal of exploring the nature of redemption and authenticity. It vibrates with musical knowledge, and is replete with insight about artistic envy.

The Island Walkers

By John Bemrose

John Murray 432pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

Various qualities of silence haunt The Island Walkers, a deeply atmospheric debut from John Bemrose. It stands for unspoken emotion, stoicism, occasionally contentment, and links the numerous characters inhabiting a rural Canadian knitting-mill town in 1965. All, to some extent, are struggling to come to terms with life as it is, rather than as they wish it to be. Alf, head fixer at one of the mills, is a man of integrity, torn between his sense of loyalty to his fellow workers and all his modest personal ambition. When new owners take over the mill, events are set in motion recalling the tragedy of 1949 (unspoken of in the town) when an ill-fated union strike ripped the community apart. Alf’s son Joe is drawn to Anna, the new girl at school who, with her talent for poetry and the glimpse she offers of new horizons, inspires him to be better than he is. Bernrose's prose is elegant, his images well chosen: a corsage pinned to Anna's chest by Joe's rival Brad hangs between them when they dance, like 'a senseless mouth gaping upward'. Existential themes of endurance and anxiety are subtly woven into a languid narrative which is at the same time robust enough to examine issues of class, passion, betrayal, and disintegration.


The River

By Tricia Wastvedt

Viking 346pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

The legacy of parental inattentiveness is chillingly captured in The River  by Tricia Wastvedt. In 1958, the picturesque Devon village of Cameldip is the setting for an unbearable tragedy, when Isabel and Robert's two children drown. In 1987, pregnant Anna finds herself taken under icy Isabel's wing and, once her son Matthew is born, frustratingly infantahsed. Numerous villagers become sucked into the psychological battle between the two women, including Josef, who, as a child, witnessed the fatal accident, and teenager Gatta, whose vacant mother once hoped to comfort Robert. As Christmas approaches, festering resentments are exposed. Wastvedt's prose is so poised, and her observations so apposite (one character wakes amongst the 'strict, polite smell of clean linen'), that you feel invigorated despite the weighty subject matter. In Isabel, Wastvedt has drawn a poignant character possessed by her own demons in the wake of unresolved grief. The plot is tight: only the last couple of pages jar, but even these are thematically consistent with the notion of the unruliness of memory.

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